Classical: Sequeira Costa, Wigmore Hall, London

Conservation of energy at the keyboard
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The Independent Culture

Why are performers so coy about their age? You can bet your life they only mention it if they are very young or very old. The Portuguese pianist Sequeira Costa has the sort of biography that makes you wonder. His teachers were Liszt's pupil José Vianna da Motta (in whose memory Costa founded a piano competition), Mark Hamburg, Edwin Fischer and Jacques Fevrier. When Costa was only 28 he sat on the jury of the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, from which I reckon he is now 71.

It's an interesting point, because on Sunday Sequeira Costa played like someone who has learnt how to save himself by conserving energy. So if Beethoven was still something of a young firebrand when he wrote his "Pathétique" Sonata in his late twenties, Costa presented him as a more sober, less impulsive character, and modified the fiery qualities of the outer movements with a distinctly restricted dynamic range, so that the effect was dogged rather than brilliant. The middle movement, too, though played with a warm, soft-grained sound, plodded rather, and melted into poetry only at the very end.

But Chopin's C sharp minor Nocturne, Op.27/1, was effortlessly natural, its right-hand melody floating far above the darkly ranging left hand. Only the stormy and heroic middle section lacked energy, so that it lost all reason to exist. Chopin's B flat minor Scherzo, too, was slightly humdrum, because Costa never took any risks: it was too much like a teacher's demonstration, without élan.

After these popular classics, the second half took Sequeira Costa back to his roots in the Iberian peninsular, and he began with three "Cenas Portugesas" by his teacher, Vianna da Motta. The first two were in popular Portuguese dance idioms – in fact, the second, "Chula", was broadcast regularly on Portugese TV during the political changes of 1974. The last piece was a salonish waltz. Unassuming pieces, and interesting mainly because their composer was an important figure in Portuguese cultural life.

Albéniz, for all his Spanishness, was much more than that. Perhaps northern Europeans expect a more demonstrative, even violent, sense of emotion in his music than musicians closer to the source seem to think proper. Costa played three pieces from "Iberia" rather gently, though that at least made the teeming detail of their richly encrusted textures audible. He's certainly not a flashy pianist, as his unostentatious way with Moszkowski's F major "Étude de virtuosité" made plain. But his understated mastery is easy to take for granted, as he proved with his second encore, Chopin's A flat major Étude, Op.25/1, whose cross currents within the constant rippling motion were balanced with minimum fuss; as gentle as a whisper.